The pun is a popular form of wordplay in which one word is replaced by a similar word for humorous effect. The role of puns in literature goes back thousands of years and includes many ancient and modern languages. Some people detest puns, which are often described as “the lowest form of humor.” Despite this, many great authors have employed puns in literature, including Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. They can be used for comic relief, as a way to conceal an in-joke or insult, or as part of a wider strategy of creative language use.
Puns are recorded in the earliest forms of written language, including Egyptian hieroglyphics and the cuneiform writing of ancient Sumer. This suggests that wordplay is a very old art form indeed. Puns in literature are sometimes called paronomasia, the ancient Greek term meaning “pun.” An equivoque involves one word with two separate meanings, such as “honey,” which can be a food or a term of endearment. If a pun involves an exchange of equivoque between two characters, it is called an asteismus.
One of the most notorious users of puns in literature was Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet, he has the dying Mercutio say, “Tomorrow…you shall find me a grave man.” The famous quote from Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” continues, “Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” This is a triple pun, or compound pun, as the “sun” is the Duke of York’s son, whose emblem was a sunburst. By one count, Shakespeare employed thousands of puns throughout his plays and poems.
Not everyone was amused. In a book on Shakespeare, the influential 18th century scholar and writer Samuel Johnson bemoaned the Bard’s frequent use of puns. Another critic of puns in literature was 17th century poet laureate John Dryden, who may have been the first to call puns “the lowest form of wit.” Even the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who was known for his biting wit, admitted that “wise men stoop” to make puns, while ”fools aspire” to them.
Nevertheless, the use of puns in literature is widespread, and includes some of the finest wordsmiths in the English language. Vladimir Nabokov, a master of both Russian and English literature, often employed puns and other word games, giving his work deeper levels of textual meaning. This sort of literary trickery was employed by later writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Alan Moore. Like Nabokov, James Joyce liked to create new words by breaking down or combining existing words and playing with their construction, or etymology. Joyce referred to this practice as “etym-smashing.”